After artist conceives an idea, and begins to think of a composition to express it, he starts working with different visual tools. These tools include rhythm, color, and light.
Each composition has a movement or rhythm. Rhythm is crucial in evoking specific emotional states. Rhythm is also very individual for each composition. Similar to music, where we listen to musical harmonies, and our mood changes along with them, in painting we are affected by visual harmonies. While within each painting, there are many different rhythms, usually there is one dominant rhythm that creates overall mood of the painting.
Dominating horizontal or vertical movement creates a feeling of stillness.
Diagonals create fast movement and build tension.
Curves create a feeling of slow motion and peacefulness.
Here are two very different examples of the use of horizontal and vertical movements in composition. Levitan’s landscape “Over the Eternal Peace”(1) has dominant horizontal horizon line, and this creates a feeling of vastness and peace.
Van Eyck’s painting “Giovanni Arnolfini and Wife”(2) uses vertical line harmonies to create a sense of monumentality and timelessness.
Jacques Louis David in his painting of Napoleon (3) uses very strong diagonals in horse’s position, in mountains and in the sky to create rapid, feverish movement.
And in our fourth example, Polenov’s “Grassy Pond”(4), we have a curve of the grass that surrounds water. This curve creates a very harmonious, slow movement.
Thus, we can see exactly how each type of line and movement changes affects our mood as a viewer.
Another element in composition that could strongly affect our mood is color. Colors could be subtle or intense, harmonious or contrasting. Same as with rhythm, we can build tension or create harmony with color.
Here, in “Night Café”(5), Van Gogh uses very intense, contrasting colors. These colors, along with diagonal of the table, create a feeling of very strong tension, on the verge of nervous breakdown.
Monet, on the other hand, in his painting “Water Lilies”(6), uses colors very differently. He uses very subtle color harmonies with very gentle contrasts. This leads to overall feeling of peacefulness and quiet contemplation.
One more important element of composition is light and shadow. Strong contrasts of light and shadow create dramatic and often mysterious effects.
In Rembrandt’s “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph”(7), we see dramatic light against deep shadows. Here, light guides us, highlighting the dominating figure of blind Jacob, and the faces of Joseph, his wife, and their sons. Although the light feels natural, it also has a transcendent quality. It almost feels like it’s coming from within Jacob, lighting up everyone in the room. The way Rembrandt uses light is very special and very deliberate. In his paintings, light is not just a tool to see things as they are, but a way to explore spiritual dimension.
Movement, color, and light are powerful expressive tools. Most artists use all of them, along with many other tools to express their ideas and feelings. Depending on their temperament, artists have their individual preferences. For instance, in Rembrandt’s works, we see that color is muted, and paintings are almost monochromatic, which however gives more power to the light and shadow.
In Van Gogh’s paintings, on the other hand, light and shadow effects are less important, however the color and the brushstroke are dominant.
And looking at Polenov’s paintings, we can say that he uses light, movement, and color together, creating synthesis that perfectly expresses the poetry of everyday life.